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Volume 50, Number 6November/December 1999

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A Counterpoint of Cloth and Stone

Written by Arthur Clark

Its graceful lines and daring counterpoint of tents and stone draw an "ahhh" of wonder from almost every visitor. From atop its serpentine wall at the edge of Wadi Hanifa, on Riyadh's northwestern city limits, one can study both the tapestry of Saudi Arabia's capital and the desert from which it sprang. Nestled inside are banqueting rooms, exhibition halls, guest quarters, swimming pools and a bowling alley, and a gem-like interior oasis.

Tuwaiq Palace, host to commoners and kings, princes, prime ministers, astronauts and artists, recently gained world recognition as a winner of the 1998 Aga Khan Award for Architecture. The triennial prize, announced in Granada, Spain, "recognizes examples of architectural excellence throughout the Muslim world in contemporary design, social housing, community improvement and development, restoration, reuse and area conservation [and] environment and landscape design."

Standing on a plateau above a lightly watered valley in the capital's new Diplomatic Quarter (See Aramco World , September/October 1988), Tuwaiq Palace takes its name from the 800-kilometer-long (495-mi) Central Arabian escarpment that runs 50 kilometers (30 miles) west of Riyadh. A center for festivals, meetings and official and social gatherings for the community at large, the palace covers 24,000 square meters (258,000 sq ft) and cost $31.2 million to build.

The building was among seven winners—three projects from India and one each from Saudi Arabia, Palestine, Pakistan and Malaysia—selected from some 425 entries for the 1998 Aga Khan Award. The prize was established by the Aga Khan in 1977 to enhance the perception of Islamic culture as expressed through architecture. Worth a total of $500,000, it is the richest and one of the most prestigious architectural awards in the world. (See Aramco World , November/December 1987, November/December 1989.)

Tuwaiq Palace earned high marks from the prize jury for its blend of traditional and ultra-modern elements, and for fitting handsomely into its environment. The building "makes reference to two local archetypes—the fortress and the tent—and incorporates the natural phenomenon of oasis," the jury said. "A unified whole is achieved by the consistent use of materials and by subtle control of the large building mass.... This reinterpretation is a daring confrontation between tradition, landscape and high technology.

"From a distance, Tuwaiq Palace appears to be a fort surrounded by an encampment, enriched by tents, walls, oases, and walkways and ever-changing vistas."

The structure is the product of an alliance among Omrania Architects, Planners and Engineers of Riyadh, Atelier Frei Otto of Germany and the structural engineering firm Büro Happold of Great Britain. Frei Otto, a pioneer in the use of tensile structures in architecture, and Omrania had each submitted independent plans in a competition sponsored by the Riyadh Development Authority in 1980. The RDA, which is responsible for the development of the Diplomatic Quarter as part and parcel of the capital, boldly asked Omrania and Frei Otto to present a unified design with Büro Happold.

"We'd worked with others in the past, but this was the first time that we had been forced into a marriage," recalls Basem S. Al-Shihabi, a Jiddah-born architect. He and Nabil Fanous are principals of Omrania. "There were certain things in each design that made sense, but none came up to the client's expectations. We were told to form a team and submit a joint proposal that we believed met the needs of the project."

After more than a year of intensive discussions and planning in Riyadh, Britain and Germany, the team presented a scheme "completely different" from those that Omrania and Frei Otto had previously submitted, Al-Shihabi says. Omrania's plan had envisioned a terraced structure rising from and blending into the rugged wadi, or valley, while Frei Otto's had called for stone domes overarched by a soaring shade structure. The new design linked the diverse themes, enhancing both.

"Tuwaiq Place is unique, definitely," says Abdulrahman M. Al-Sari, Director of Urban and Cultural Development at the RDA. "It's one of the examples that we use to show how to build a building that belongs to the place and the space it's erected in. It belongs to Riyadh, to the wadi, to that particular location."

"It's not possible to imagine this building in New York, Tokyo or even Jiddah. It supports the Riyadh Development Authority's philosophy of contemporary local architecture."

That RDA philosophy was summed up in the project's terms of reference, which provided a general outline of what the authority expected from local and international consultants in their submissions.

"We don't do design," Al-Sari says of the RDA. "Our terms of reference guide the consultants to fulfill our requirements in terms of space, aims, hopes and vision. We give consultants the most freedom we can, at the same time telling them our vision so they can respond to it."

That has certainly proved a winning formula for the RDA, whose commissions have garnered a total of four Aga Khan Awards since 1989. Three were for projects at the Diplomatic Quarter, and one was for the redevelopment of Riyadh's old city center and the Imam Turki ibn 'Abd Allah Mosque there. (See Aramco World, January/February 1999.)

Al-Sari points out two key criteria laid down for Tuwaiq Palace: that architects respect the natural setting on the wadi edge and that they honor its desert location by planting no lush greenery within 100 meters of the structure. The two points proved a steep challenge for designers. The RDA also asked architects to avoid clichés from the past. "Any form of revival style or copying traditional patterns and details in old or new material, thus creating a false 'neo-Orientalism,' will not be acceptable," it stated.

The Diplomatic Quarter lies on a protruding ridge of barren limestone that contrasts sharply with the greenery and palm trees in the wadi below. The envisaged building—called the Diplomatic Club in the initial planning stages—would stand less than 100 meters from the wadi edge, ruling out lush exterior plantings.

"How could we do a club without a garden?" asks Al-Shihabi. "The answer was to make a garden—and hide it."

That kind of legerdemain required a wall, of course. "We finally decided we would turn the building into a wall and the wall into a building," says Al-Shihabi. "The building and the wall would become one." Indeed, the wall became habitable. Up to 12 meters (39') high and from seven to 13 meters (22-43') wide, it easily accommodates, for example, four suites and 30 guest rooms in its thickness—each with a spectacular view of the wadi from its windows or its private terrace.

Then planners took the idea one step further by extending three flowing tents from the exterior of the building. The strikingly white, cable-tensioned structures of Teflon-coated Fiberglas cloth met the space requirements for banqueting, dining and reception halls, as well as the sports hall. They are supported at their tops by radial cables attached to the walls at fan-shaped steel anchors, and on the ground by inclined masts hinged to anchor blocks. At their outer edges, the cloth meets not the ground but vertical glass walls. One of the tents has three interior levels, making it even more versatile.

"The tents are functional and contemporary, not just a copy of something historical," says Al-Sari. Moreover, their Teflon coating means they stay relatively free of dust and dirt, thus preserving their whiteness. Lighted from the inside at night, the glowing, translucent tents are visible from a long distance.

Inside, the palace features two more tents, these covered with small blue ceramic tiles arranged in a fish-scale pattern. They face the gardens and also feature skylights, throwing patterns of sun and shadow onto the internal walls. A smaller, central tent celebrates the lush, green oasis hidden in the heart of the palace; it is clad in rich-hued, handmade ceramic tiles reflecting garden scenes.

The tent-and-wall theme of the building is an exceptional union of two forms of shelter—usually mutually exclusive—that represent two sides of Saudi Arabia's heritage: The tents reflect the kingdom's mobile, desert-based Bedouin culture; the walls represent its settled oases and cities. The wide walls themselves are topped by walkways running 800 meters (2600') around the perimeter of the facility, offering an inspiring view by day or night.

Paradoxically, the very contrast of the tents and walls provides a "fusing element" that unifies the structure as a whole, says Al-Shihabi. "The solid wall of rough stone and the smooth textile of the tent were the things that really brought it together."

The design team delivered its plan within a year of linking up under the auspices of the RDA, and the structure was completed late in 1984. Omrania was responsible for the overall architecture of the project, while Frei Otto was the lightweight-structure expert.

The palace was put to use late in 1985. "The building is for the whole city," says Al-Sari, and hosts roughly 80 events a year. These range from exhibitions about Arabic calligraphy and traditional mud buildings, for instance, to lectures, seminars and even weddings. The facility is managed by the RDA, but the organization would one day like to turn it over to a company to be run commercially, Al-Sari adds. "It would create a lot of business," he says, pointing to its beautifully sited guest quarters and its wealth of facilities. "We hope it will happen, and that it will be fully used."

The building is set in a total land area of 75,000 square meters (807,000 sq ft). That provides plenty of space to view it advantageously from the rest of the Diplomatic Quarter, home to embassies and residents, diplomats and non-diplomats alike.

Despite initial misgivings about Omrania's "forced marriage" with Frei Otto, Al-Shihabi now agrees the experiment in architecture was a huge success. "We felt that the wall was a natural outgrowth of the plateau and that the tents draped over this wall took advantage of the views offered both internally and externally. For that site, it worked very well," he says. He credits the RDA with the "courage and foresight" to set out carefully conceived guidelines at the start and hold the design team to its standards.

Those guidelines kept the facility true to its culture and purpose, and also helped win the Aga Khan Award, he says.

The overall aim of the award, the Aga Khan told guests and prizewinners at the Alhambra Palace, is to honor progressive building styles and to reignite the architectural energy that once led the way in meeting man's need for shelter and beauty. "The decision to create the award stemmed from a sense that Islamic societies had lost some of their extraordinary inheritance in the domain of human creativity, in which they once set standards for the rest of the world," he said. "The overarching goal of the award is to stimulate the reawakening of that inheritance, and nurture its continuing evolution in contemporary terms."

With its walls of yellow Riyadh limestone and its taut, luminous, curving tents, Tuwaiq Palace achieves that goal. "The good thing is that you feel it's really contemporary but still close to the heart of Riyadh," says Al-Sari. "It's close to the hearts of the people."

Arthur Clark, a Saudi Aramco staff writer based in Dhahran, wrote about the city of Riyadh in the January/ February 1999 issue of Aramco World, and helped report Arab states' humanitarian aid to Kosovo in the March/April issue.

This article appeared on pages 2-7 of the November/December 1999 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


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